When you decide you’re going to write a novel, soon after you have imagined your characters and mapped out an outline, you’ll have to decide on tense and point of view. We covered point of view in the last chapter, which in a nutshell, is your decision on whether you’ll tell your story from first person perspective or third.
Once you’ve decided on that, you also need to decide on what tense you want to write it in. There are two tenses to choose from Present Tense and Past Tense.
Present tense gives the reader the sense that the action is happening just as the reader reads it. This can give the prose a feeling of immediacy, which can be very effective for thrillers and suspense stories. On the other hand, some readers find it distracting to be told that something is happening “right now”. Present tense can also be difficult to write.
Let’s look at DIVERGENT by Veronica Roth who writes in Present Tense
I sit on the stool and my mother stands behind me with the scissors, trimming. The strands fall to the floor in a dull, blond ring.
I sneak a look at my reflection when she isn’t paying attention.
If Ms Roth had decided to write her book in Past Tense it would read like this.
I sat on the stool and my mother stood behind me with scissors, trimming. The strands fell to the floor in a dull, blond ring.
I sneaked a look at my reflection when she wasn’t paying attention.
The reason Present Tense is difficult is because when you are referring to things that happened in the past, you have to use past tense, even while writing in present tense.
“I sit here writing this post. I drink my coffee. I type. Yesterday I did the same thing. I drank my coffee and typed. The cat comes in to disturb me again. I love routine.”
See how, even though that paragraph is in present tense, when I referred to the past, I had to switch to past tense, but it’s still present tense prose.
This is it again in past tense.
“I sat there writing my post. I drank my coffee. I typed. Yesterday I had done the same thing. I drank my coffee and typed. The cat came in to disturb me again today. I loved routine.”
Sometimes a story works best starting in one tense and then switching to another as I do in CLOCKWISE. I use present tense when she talks about her hair and how everyone has to live with something, but switch to past tense when she catches the ball at the school. The rest of the novel remains in past tense.
Be careful that you don’t mix your tenses back and forth. If you’re writing in past tense, don’t all of sudden switch to present and then back to past in the same scene. This is very easy to do, and is something to watch for during your revision process.
Things to watch for:
Present tense: I say, he says, she says. I do or don’t, she does or doesn’t. I will or won’t, he will or won’t. I am writing, He is writing. I can or can't.
Past tense: I said, he said, she said. I did or didn’t, she did or didn’t. I would or wouldn’t, he would or wouldn’t. I was writing. He was writing. I could or couldn't.